Wednesday, February 13, 2013


The administrative history of US immigration policy arguably reflects a history of major shifts in political emphasis: from the economy, to culture, then (at least until recently) to security.

The first immigration office in US history was created under the Treasury Department during the economic depression of the late 1880s to enforce related group exclusions (Donovan, 2005). That office then became the Immigration and Naturalization Services (“INS”) in 1891, which developed a new variety of immigration services emphasizing the need for a somewhat more liberal “commercial”  immigration filter, before being transferred from one cabinet department to another throughout the twentieth-century (more so than any other large federal agency)--first to Commerce and Labor, then to Labor, then to Justice, and finally to Homeland Security, depending on the political winds and the prevailing concerns of the times (Donovan, 2005).

And yet, throughout that history, INS was somehow able to retain a fairly consistent identity--as a soft political punching ball. According to Wilson (2000, p. 158), the agency was “conspicuous for its weak sense of mission and low morale.” Many deemed it a unique model of the most terrible form of bureaucratic inefficiency, and its leaders were frequently fired or otherwise replaced. Still, it retained a sort of organizational “inertia […] in large part due to the lack of consensus about what specifically should be changed” about it (Donovan, 2005, p. 577).

Interestingly, this remained the case even after the 1960s, when the ideal of multiculturalism, following the civil rights movement, arguably led to a new liberalization of immigration policies: “the numbers of foreign-born grew so rapidly that many communities and states felt overburdened with the responsibility to absorb them all” (Donovan, 2005, p.36). And, as the number of immigrants grew, so did their political power base--while the functions of immigration enforcement and services continued to vary on a spectrum, somewhere between interest group politics and client politics, depending on larger public perceptions of the per capita costs and benefits of immigration (see Wilson, 2000).

Then came 9/11--shifting immigration discourse and policy this time toward national security priorities (Mabee, 2007, p. 393). This shift led to what was arguably the most dramatic organizational change in the history of US immigration. INS, with 15,000 employees, was the largest organization to be transferred to the Department of Homeland Security ("DHS"), where it was broken up into pieces. Its immigration enforcement function was divided between two agencies: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), for internal immigration control, and Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”), for immigration control at the border; and the function of immigration services was left to a third agency, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).

The transfer of INS to DHS was justified on one or two grounds. First of all, 9/11 revealed gross inadequacies in the US immigration filter. With only one exception, the terrorists were allowed, not only to obtain multiple tourist, business and student visas from the State Department, but also to enter the country under INS' nose, and to overstay those visas for long enough to carry out their plan (GAO, 2007; Donovan, 2005). It was surely enough that the politically-weak INS was easier to blame for these failures than the powerful State Department; but the former organization's fate was definitely sealed once it was publicly revealed that it had “sent notices approving the change of status applications of [two of the] hijackers six months after the attacks” (Donovan, 2005, p.16).

At the same time (second of all), perhaps that fate had been preordained (at least in part), in light of the common view that one should never let a serious crisis go to waste. 9/11 brought new energy and attention to national security rhetoric--enough to drown out almost all other messages in the “policy subsystem” (Brook & King, 2007; Cohen et al., 2006). Therefore, in associating immigration benefits negatively with the more pressing policy issue of national security, perhaps anti-immigrant voices found a “potent political lever for change” (Moynihan, 2005, p. 192), whereas pro-immigrant groups “were given little attention, as the general feeling of the nation at the time was to do whatever it took to secure the nation’s borders from terrorist threats” (Donovan, 2005, p. 38).

Regardless, ICE became the largest investigative arm of DHS—and, incidentally, the second-largest investigative agency of the federal government after the FBI (Lovalo, 2008).

But what exactly does ICE investigate? In its own words, it “aggressively uses powerful immigration and customs authorities to protect the American people through the investigation of the illegal introduction of goods, terrorists and other criminals seeking to cross our Nation’s borders” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE], 2008). And, according to its strategic plans, this should really translate into a primary focus on enforcement against aliens who pose a threat to national security and public safety, as well as aliens who have ignored orders to leave the United States (i.e., “fugitive aliens”) (GAO, 2007).

Interestingly, one of the agency's key investigative components, the Compliance Enforcement Unit ("CEU"), which is charged with tracking and pursuing foreign students, exchange visitors, and other non-immigrant visitors who violate their immigration status, has defined its mission even more narrowly: “to prevent terrorist and criminal acts by targeting the people, money, and materials that support terrorist and criminal networks.”

Meanwhile, ICE is also responsible for “one of the largest, most transient and most diverse detainee populations in U.S. custody.”

So, applying bureaucracy scholar James Q. Wilson's categories, some might expect ICE, as a vast law enforcement agency, to display primarily the traits of a coping agency (whose larger outputs and outcomes are not easily observable), while others might expect it, based on its narrower strategic focus, to display primarily the traits of a craft agency (whose outputs alone are not easily observable). Still others might emphasize the organization's resemblance to a procedural agency (whose outcomes alone are not observable).

Regardless, ICE's status as an essential federal agency remains obvious--especially, considering that, unlike USCIS, the organization is funded primarily through appropriations.

USCIS is the federal agency responsible for granting or denying immigration benefits to individuals seeking to reside or work in the United States. It processes millions of immigration benefit applications and petitions annually--and, on this basis, we could describe it as a production agency, with both its outputs (such as grants or denials of benefits) and their outcomes (such as backlogs) being observable within a reasonable amount of time (even though USCIS adjudicators exercise a fair amount of discretion in many cases).

According to its strategic plans, USCIS' mission is “to secure America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to [its] customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of the immigration system.” At the same time, interestingly enough, USCIS often seems tempted to overemphasize the security dimension of its latter role--for example, in its 2008 Annual Report, where it presented strengthening “the security and integrity of the immigration system” as its first strategic goal.

Nonetheless, highlighting this "security" function has not freed the agency from the congressional requirement that it be self-funded through fees, including for programs for which it is compelled by law not to charge any fee--programs such as asylum and refugee processing, or the naturalization filings of US armed forces personnel. This fact, according to USCIS' Ombudsman, compels “decisions that compromise operational efficiency to ensure revenue flow;” it is “one of the principal challenges to efficient and timely delivery of immigration services” (Department of Homeland Security, 2007, pp. iv, 46).

Why is USCIS funded through fees while ICE is funded by appropriations? For one thing, as Donovan (2005) points out, the anti-terrorist climate that followed 9/11 caused taxpayers and legislators to be more inclined toward investing more in enforcement and commensurately less in services. DHS simply came to institutionalize this prioritization of enforcement (or security) over services (or benefits). But I think it would also be interesting to consider how much the agency's own failure to emphasize its non-security interests (instead of appropriating its sister agency's focus) may have actually weakened its bureaucratic standing in the long run. Wilson (2000, p. 95) points out that “a sense of mission confers a feeling of special worth” on members of an organization. Surely, ICE officers must have found a ready sense of worth in their mission to protect the United States from potential terrorists after 9/11; however, perhaps the United States' balance of interests would have been better served in the long run had USCIS more clearly and more proudly declared as its priority the goal of salvaging those "commercial" and "cultural" immigration interests which were among the earliest casualties of the tragic legacy of INS after 9/11.

Brook, D.A., & King, C.L. (2007). Civil Service Reform as National Security: The Homeland Security Act of 2002. Public Administration Review, 67(3), 399-407.

Department of Homeland Security. (2007). Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman Annual Report 2007. Washington, DC: Author.

Donovan, T. W. (2005). The American Immigration System: A Structural Change with a Different Emphasis. International Journal of Refugee Law, 17(3), 574-592.

Donovan, T. W. (2005). Immigration Policy Changes After 9/11: Some Intended and Unintended Consequences. The Social Policy Journal, Vol. 4(1), 33-50.

Immigration & Customs Enforcement. (2008). Fiscal Year 2008 Annual Report. Washington, DC: Author.

Lovalo, R. (2008). Building the Homeland Security State. NACLA Report on the Americas, 15-20.

Moynihan, D. P. (2005). Homeland Security and the U.S. Public Management Policy Agenda. Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions, 18(2), 171–196.

United States Government Accountability Office. (2007). Homeland Security: Progress Has Been Made to Address the Vulnerabilities Exposed by 9/11, but Continued Federal Action Is Needed to Further Mitigate Security Risks. (GAO Publication No. 07-375). Washington, DC: Author.

United States Government Accountability Office. (2007). Immigration Enforcement: ICE Could Improve Controls to Help Guide Alien Removal Decision Making (GAO Publication No. 08-67). Washington, DC: Author.

Wilson, J. Q. (2000). Bureaucracy. USA: Basic Books.

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